By Chrös McDougall | Jan. 21, 2016, 8:48 p.m. (ET)
Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea react to their scores after competing in the pairs short program at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship on Jan. 21, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim gave figure skating fans hope for the future of the U.S. pairs program last year, when they became the first American team to qualify for the ISU Grand Prix Final since 2007.

However, a disappointing seventh-place finish at that event last month was followed by another hiccup Thursday as the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships got underway in St. Paul. Knierim fell on a triple Salchow as the defending champions saw their short program score drop nearly seven points from their event-record score last year.

Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea lead after day one with a score of 69.61, while Scimeca and Knierim are second at 67.35.

“It’s disappointing, because we haven't been skating like that,” Knierim said. “Especially that triple twist. We don't mess up. The jump is the one I fell on all week.”

Scimeca and Knierim — who are engaged to be married this summer — are still favorites to defend their national title and earn one of two U.S. berths to the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston. They’ll have their opportunity for redemption Saturday afternoon in the free skate.

However, on Thursday, Kayne and O’Shea were ready to take the spotlight.

Skating last, the duo came out in dark costumes and skated a strong program that matched their intense and brooding — and, to some, controversial — music: “Take Me to Church” by Hozier. The performance got the attention of the afternoon crowd at Xcel Energy Center, with fans cheering on the performance and some giving a standing ovation afterward.

“It's been an idea in our mind for a while.  The music is something we talked about using maybe next season,” O’Shea said. “The shorts weren't going that well for us this season. We knew after Cup of Russia that we were going to do it. But there were like three days between Russia and Zagreb (Golden Skate). We started it as soon as we could and are happy we did.”

Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, skating in their second U.S. championships together, scored 64.12 in their short program to finish third. It was almost an identical score to their 64.24 score last year, at their first U.S. championships together. However, they dropped from third to sixth place after the free skate.

“I think we did a good job selling the program,” Castelli said. “We've worked really hard on trying to smooth it out more. We've put in a lot of work on elements and our confidence.”

After their short program, Scimeca and Knierim are unlikely to match their record final score from last year’s national championships. However, their top scores are a step ahead of the U.S. competition and they are the only team in St. Paul with a difficult quad twist in their repertoire.

Still, it’s not where the defending champions expected to be after the short.

“It’s not that we don't feel the pressure because there isn't competition, it's because we feel like we were more prepared than ever,” Scimeca said. “Which is why this program was disappointing.”

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.